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2 Corinthians 4:13 — A Riposte to Descartes' Cogito Ergo Sum

Christian philosophers and theologians have never quite been able to respond to the pithiness of the French philosopher Descartes' implied solipsism, Cogito ergo sum: "I think, therefore, I am."

  • James Bilezikian,
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Christian philosophers and theologians have never quite been able to respond to the pithiness of the French philosopher Descartes' implied solipsism, Cogito ergo sum: "I think, therefore, I am." The power of its rapier thrust can be seen in the fact that in three short Latin words, or five short English words, it attacks the very heart of the Reformation. It assimilates with simple and eloquent brevity a summation of the nature of man's rebellion against God. It is such a powerfully bloated statement of overweening pride, that it leaves the unprepared or unsuspecting breathless and, in too many cases, speechless.

Assertion of Submission
Our gracious God provides his kingdom with a response even more powerful, which, for its sheer beauty and the garland of love surrounding it, has no equal. It is replete with the sweet scent of redemption. It is the great and much overlooked statement in the passage of 2 Corinthians 4:13, "I believe; therefore, I speak."

This statement is a declaration of our exalted position before God as members of the Body of Christ, as members of the Kingdom of God, as souls resurrected from the dust of death. For God, it is not enough merely to bring us back to life. His love is so embracing that his resurrecting teleology will not be complete until he assures that those whom he brought back to life will themselves be involved in the process of the re-creation of life.

The fullness of restored life can be experienced only in the participation of the resurrection of the life of others. In the Greek, the word used for salvation implies past, present, and future (we were saved, are being saved, and shall be saved). Salvation is not one specific act or moment; it involves the redemption not only of the soul but of the whole of the life of man. Therefore, speech inspired by faith drives us, because of our new identity, to embrace completely the fallen world, fallen man in past, present and future. That full embrace is not on the terms of the fallen world, but established on the terms of the Law-Word and order of God. By the grace of God, we participate lovingly in the whole and continued life of those who respond by faith to the spoken word of God. Since we know from the Scriptures that proper speaking from faith can be done only in love ("speak the truth in love") and that love is expressed with the subjective and objective unity of body, mind and spirit, man can never separate speaking the truth in love from rightly motivated action. Thus, man's derivative creativity realizes its fullness when man is speaking from faith. In the mystery of God's power, the spoken truth acts as an engine of re-creation, squarely positioning man in the center of the Garden with the Tree of Life as his sustenance, his spirit, and his identity.

The Denuding of Man
Descartes will have none of this. By defining man autonomously and exhaustively in terms of his mind, and by implying the infinite by the use of the "I am," Descartes strips man naked. That is not enough for Descartes. If he is going to desecrate the image of God, he must desecrate the imager. By using the very words that God first uses to describe himself, ("I am"—implying no beginning and no end), Descartes mocks God on the one hand and mocks man on the other. He does this by merging man with the very one he is mocking. Disregard for God is always inextricably linked with disregard for man, the image. Thus, we see with one phrase the hatred for God and the hatred for man consummately proclaimed. It is the identity defined by God and subordinated to God to participate in redemptive activity which places Descartes' statement as the purest form of rebellion hurled at God and hurled at man. When it hits its mark, this splinter of mendacity lodges in the throat of man and deprives him of redemptive speech and activity, thus stripping from man his image fullness, his identity. By accepting the charge of Descartes, the sentence of death hangs heavily on man.

The Restoration of Man by the Cross and Resurrection
By contrast, Paul says, "I believe; therefore, I speak." He says it quietly, almost as an afterthought. David first uses that phrase in Psalm 116:10. He is describing how his faith led him to appeal to the Lord for personal deliverance from a desperate, life-threatening situation. David describes how his faith leads him to speak so that he can metaphorically be brought back from the dead. Paul's quiet expansion of David's statement is a wonderful picture of the explosive, resonating reverberation of the Cross. Paul, with the Cross towering behind him and the resurrected Lord marching before him, is emptied of the dread of death. Being emptied of death, just as the tomb was, he is free to speak the word that flows from faith to the salvation and well-being of the lost. This statement by Paul, spoken ever so humbly and quietly as an explanation for his interest in the salvation of others, as an explanation for why he is so compelled to bring the Good News of Life through our Lord Jesus Christ, thunders throughout history as a battle cry served up for those who are being saved and will be saved and against those who would seek to mortify man by securing him to the mast of his own fallen nature.

Continuity With Nimrod
Thus, the bellicose bile of Descartes' Cogito ergo sum, "I think; therefore, I am" with its smug, syntactical web is seen for what it is, the transmogrified sword of a man long since dead: Nimrod, the great hunter of men. The memory of the greatness of Nimrod is the memory of the greatness of his undoing. What he accomplished by his war on men and his fulmination against heaven and his arrogation of glory to himself was to ensure his own ignominy and the dumb stupefaction of his subjects. The loss of communication, of being able to speak to one another, must rate as one the greatest judgments brought by God upon man; it strikes at the very heart of man's ability to realize what it means to be made in the image of God. Thus, Descartes places himself in line with the vanquished, as a new Nimrod, a man who hunts other men, not with the brandished sword that reflects the sun, stained by blood, but with the bare thread of a syllogistic gossamer that man can use in his blind fury against God as a holographic lever projected by his own fantasy to be large enough to move the earth. The droplets that collect on this web are not the droplets of a new world born in the morning, not the collection of the soft sweetness of an awakening earth but, the blood of man sacrificed to the Lord of the Flies.

The Enlightenment
There is a direct line of regression between Descartes' declaration of man's autonomy, which is exhaustive and self-contained, and the slippery slope of the Enlightenment. This slope culminates at the bottom of a deep and broad pit, the mass graves of genocide. The S. S. death-head insignia captures the inevitable result of man defining himself in terms of himself. In doing this, man arrogates to himself the Godhead, and power over life and death. This is the "Superman" that Nietzsche envisioned, a man who defines his own morality, who can remake the world around him in terms of his own image, and whose driving force is the imposition of his will on the world. "Triumph of the Will," a film directed by Leni Riefenstahl and released in 1934, is a glorification of Hitler's embodiment and apotheosis of Nietzsche's "Superman." The migration from heaven to hell on earth is neatly made. Man as Superman, or as his own god, can grant life, and he can take life. Thus it is no coincidence that we have the phenomenon of Hitler and Stalin, the two greatest mass murderers in history, ruling at the same time. Both are fruit ripened on the tree of death, the tree of lies, the tree of deception that had been planted right at the beginning of the seventeenth century by the philosopher Descartes. He provided the intellectual framework, a pagan call to arms, to rise up against the great edifice of the Reformation to shake off the yoke of "this offending God" whose very existence was an effrontery to those whose worship is man.

The echo of Descartes has carved a great hollow in much of the history of the last four hundred years. It has provided a vast hiding place for the wicked. It has been a gathering point for many pulpiteers to plot their heresies. However, the solid beat of God's drum can be heard behind all the clatter, behind all the murmurings and behind all the lies of the heartless. It can be heard quietly and in attestation to a redemptive God who grants us faith that he may triumph over our will, that we may speak, so that salvation can come from hearing, and hearing from the word of God.